Last Updated on May 9, 2022 by Stone
The wolves of Scotland have not been a thing since 1680 officially or 1888 unofficially. Either way, they are long gone from the landscape along with the lush forest and diverse wildlife that was present 1000s of years ago. The now barren land team with sheep and deer and nothing in the way of predators. One man aims to bring back the land on his 23,000-acre refuge. To do that, he argues, he’s gonna need some wolves. Check out why below.
Background on the Scottish Wolf
Believe it or not, the Scottish countryside was once heavily forested as was much of the British Isle and wolves were plentiful. In 950 AD King Athelstan imposed an annual tribute of 300 wolf skins on Welsh king Hywel Dda. In England, wolves were often trapped versus being hunted outright. It was rumored that wolves would dig up and eat human corpses if prey was hard to find. This obviously made them an enemy of the people. Eventually, King Edward I (reigned from 1272-1307) ordered all wolves exterminated in his kingdom.
In Scotland, wolves were also known to dig up graves. This led to some inhabitants resorting to burying their dead on nearby islands like Handa Island. Coffins were sometimes made of flagstone to make them “wolf proof.” Wolves were regarded to be such a danger to travelers that spittals (special houses) were erected on highways to offer protection.
It is thought that extinction occurred in the Scottish lowlands somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries which was around the same time that much of the forest was cleared. With habitat destruction for livestock production, wolves started killing cattle. Various Scottish kings made it a requirement to participate in the wolf hunt which was held three times a year and coincided with when pups were born. Officially the last wolf in Scotland was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680 but reports of wolves persisted until the 18th century with the last unconfirmed tale of a wolf sighting in 1888.
12,000 years ago Scotland had forests and diverse wildlife. Between 1750 and 1850 the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands were forcefully evicted to clear the land and provide grazing for sheep farming. Traditional clan society eroded and rural areas were depopulated and people emigrated from Scotland. With wolves extinct as well as bears, the deer population exploded. Aristocratic hunters loved this but what was left of the forests was destroyed further by over-grazing. Only 1% of the native pinewoods remain today.
It is estimated that there are 750,000 deer in Scotland (Red Deer and Roe Deer). Every year there is a culling to thin the numbers but obviously, this isn’t solving the problem. This has led some Scottish residents to push the idea of reintroducing wolves to the highlands. First suggested in the 1960s, it has started to gain traction following the successful reintroductions of red wolves (though their fate is now in jeopardy) in the southeastern US in the 80s and the gray wolves in Yellowstone in the 90s.
A Scotsman named, Paul Lister wants to try doing a scaled-back version of Yellowstone in the Scottish Highlands. He purchased 23,000 acres in the central highlands nearly 2 decades ago and named it the Alladale Wilderness Reserve. He planted nearly a million trees, restored peatlands, created a Scottish wildcat habitat, protected salmon streams, and prohibited hunting. Some animals began to make a comeback but the out-of-control deer population stymied the tree replanting effort, eating the young tree shoots before they could mature.
Lister is trying to get permission to bring wolves over from Sweden. He would like 2 packs of 6 gray wolves each. He proposes building a fence around the reserve, introducing the wolves, and letting the land heal itself. The wolves might only kill 30-40 deer a year but their presence will reintroduce the deer to fear. Fear will keep the deer moving and from overgrazing in any one spot. The trees would have a chance to grow to maturity. The land would heal like it did in Yellowstone.
Right to Roam Law
In Scotland, there is a law called the Right to Roam. It’s a fairly new law enacted in 2003 that allows anyone access to any land privately owned or not. That’s definitely a concept that seems exceptionally foreign to Americans who value property rights as a foundation of American law. In some US states, you can shoot trespassers for example. The United States is a big country with lots of public lands. Scotland is much smaller and locking people out of private lands would limit the public’s access to nature for sure.
What Lister is proposing essentially skirts this law by erecting a fence. He admits that he plans to charge tourists to see the wolves. He estimates that the region which sees about 1000 hikers today would see 10x as many if there were wolves to observe in the wild. Yellowstone brings in millions of dollars each year as a direct result of wolf-related tourism. It is currently the only place in the world where you can reliably expect to observe a wolf in the wild. Wolves remember are not hanging out at schools and local parks waiting to snatch your kids like Ted Nugent would have you believe, they are shy and avoid humans at all costs. I hate to break it to you but that wolf you thought you saw that one time was likely a coyote. Seeing a wolf in the wild is a rare event.
If Lister is given the green light, he could very well create a Yellowstone-type experience in Europe.
It would be amazing to see wolves again on the British Isle. I suspect that it would be an uphill battle. Much of the prejudice we see today towards wolves obviously originated in Europe and was captured in songs, folk, and fairytales. As human beings, we often engage in surface-level thinking and when pressed are unable to articulate why we love or hate something. Doing so challenges our beliefs and makes us uncomfortable. The prejudice against wolves is deeply ingrained and spans continents.
If Lister can get approval to introduce 12 wolves to his land and can put a fence up to keep his experiment controlled, wolves might stand a chance in the UK. To do so he will have to overcome a law that allows anyone to access his land and the much larger barrier of human beings with their minds already made upon the subject. If this experiment can be allowed to run its course I believe, based on the US experience, that the land will heal itself and there will be the added benefit of increased tourism and money to the local economy. Such results would be hard to argue against.